'Slender Man' Review: This Is Not How You Go Viral

The supernatural character of Slender Man began with just two captioned pictures, posted to the Something Awful forums in 2009 by Eric Knudsen (a.k.a. "Victor Surge"), but within hours people were telling their own stories and contributing new images. An exquisite corpse spanning every corner of the internet, Slender Man's power emerged from this conceptual instability. Imposing, eerily insubstantial, the entity shifted shape from person to person, as each selected from the vast cloud of material to create their own conception of the monster. Slender Man, directed by Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard) and written by David Birke (Elle), attempts to transplant this nebulous figure directly from the internet to the capture those same strengths, but ends up destroying its monster in the process.

It doesn't help that there's not much left that's scary about Slender Man. The suit and tie look like cosplay affectation, the blank face proclaiming the core vacuousness of a creature with no identity beyond dark insinuations. What worked online becomes lifeless onscreen (especially the tentacles). Not that Slender Man ever really makes an effort.

It's hard to remember a lazier set-up: an online video is all it takes for Slender Man to invade your life. It may look, as one character calls it, like "Russian warez," but it's not hidden, or obscure, or shown only to a select few. Characters easily discover it with a quick Google search (why this isn't a nationwide epidemic is a question Slender Man is too hackneyed to ask). They summon Slender Man by closing their eyes for three church bells, then watching a rapid-fire fan mash-up of the video from The Ring and generic occult symbolism, like a recurring pyramidal eye, as inexplicably important to Slender Man as it is to the freemasons.

After four friends watch the video, Slender Man takes away Katie (Annalise Basso). And for a small window of time, Slender Man has something resembling a real plot, as Wren (Joey King), Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles) and Chloe (Jaz Sinclair) investigate her disappearance, deploying a cut-rate kid detective distraction routine to steal Katie's laptop and uncover online archives of user-submitted Slender Man footage.

There's even the barest promise of expanding complications, after Katie's father breaks into Hallie's house to blame her for his daughter's disappearance. But while Slender Man briefly entertains an interesting question—what does Slender Man do to a community?—it just as soon abandons it.

"This could be the next wrinkle in the story," Wren says. It isn't.

It's not the last time Slender Man retreats from its own worldbuilding, or just doesn't bother. A mysterious tree, an open gate in the middle of the woods, a paranormal science book about "biolectric beings," those three church bells… all of it amounts to precisely nothing.

Even if Slender Man worked as a movie monster, there's no rising above the mediocre material he has to work with here. Aside from the adrenal rush of a loud noise, Slender Man is never scary, instead tossing together overused horror effects like the stretchy demon faces from The Exorcism of Emily Rose, non sequitur "dream" imagery and the Babadook's long-fingered, frame-stuttering movements.

Scares follow a strict "you think he's there, but then he's HERE" formula, often intermixed with Slender Man's unexplained penchant for gadgets. It's not just the video that summons him—this entity is practically a spectral Radio Shack. Every other phone call is a digital squawk. He messes with music players. And then there's his favorite trick of all: Slender Man loves sending victims first-person Steadicam footage from outside the house, as he glides through the door and up the stairs. But wouldn't you know it, when you go to look outside… he's right behind you!

Refusing to build on the fuzzy, aggregate mythology created online, Slender Man dissolves into a sloppy, endlessly subjective reality, where kids are in the woods one minute, snapping awake in bed the next. Anything can happen, because nothing binds Slender Man into a coherent threat. Rather than mysterious, his motives are nonexistent. He could just as well caress your face as turn reality into a kaleidoscope.

"You think Slender Man is strangling you out, but actually you're strangling yourself," Wren says. Sure enough, Hallie soon finds her own hands at her neck.

Unreality can be powerfully disorienting and frightening, assuming both an expansive imagination and characters strong enough to carry us. In It, Pennywise can build reality however he wants, but the kids are so well-developed we can orient ourselves around how they react to the surreality of Derry's resident kid-eating clown. But while all of Slender Man's four leads are believable actors, they're saddled with some of the most generic high school characters in recent horror history. Broad "types"—the goth, the stoner, the nerd—would have been preferable to what Slender Man offers: a group of teenagers so bereft of personality and drama that one of the only interpersonal conflicts centers around how Hallie cares too much about track practice.

Just because Slender Man is real doesn't mean the fan art stops. Sony Pictures Releasing

Slender Man is stuffed with bad Photoshops, children's sketches and whatever other cruft they could dig up online to populate the walls and diaries of its characters. It feels like a misguided effort at fan service, but has the effect of undermining any possibility of tonal control over the aesthetic of its monster. By building nothing of its own, the monster becomes vague, rather than mysterious; shallow, rather than multifaceted. Slender Man feels as used up as any years-old meme, like trying to explain what's funny about dat boi a decade late.